A current portion of my scattershot career path, which this year has meandered from giraffe tenderer to Willy Wonka to rubber band man, daily places me on a rather lengthy bus ride around and in a white collar Mecca known by the locals as Bishop Ranch and by everyone else as that place where yuppies who don’t want to work in San Francisco proper go for presumably gainful employment. Bishop Ranch, or at least the vast majority thereof, resides in the city of San Ramon, a tony San Francisco Bay Area suburb where the police have so little to do they actually come to stores for shoplifting calls, residents out and about have to duck drive-by snubbings, and a street fight is defined as two soccer moms reaching for the same latte at Starbucks.

There was once upon a time – sixty years worth of time, to be precise – a ranch on Bishop Ranch’s seventeen hundred and seventy acres, this era concluding in 1955 when the at that time current Mr. Bishop passed away and his heirs decided they’d rather cut and run than continue to corral cattle, thus selling the land to Western Electric. Fast forward twenty-three years to when Western Electric, by then on its deathbed as part of the AT&T monopoly breakup that eventually gave us, um, AT&T, sold the ranch to a business development firm which immediately set out planting as many concrete wedding cakes with windows as it could fit into the available acreage. They’re still planting them, as daily I ride past a not unsubstantial construction site for yet another retail shops in the basement with apartments in the attic site currently all the rage in these parts.

There has been at least some effort to maintain Bishop Ranch’s rural legacy. The grounds have a multitude of trees scattered about, oak and pine and eucalyptus and even a few redwoods. A good portion of them give evidence by way of height and width of predating the building frenzy, doubtless present to both provide wood for assorted ranch requirements and shade for assorted cows and bulls to do what cows and bulls do, namely munch on grass while waiting for the next minor earthquake to rumble through so they can get a free hoof massage.

Trees notwithstanding, it’s impossible to gaze out the bus window and not wonder what this land was like when it was man using nature rather than man subletting nature and paving over everything else. In the city where I was born and raised, a standard joke whenever any kind of new development came in was the regrettable nature of tearing down yet another perfectly good empty field just for this. Progression progresses even as man multiplies; all these people have to have somewhere they can work and earn just enough money for enabling living the lifestyle they can’t afford. Yet, one wonders if any surviving members of the Bishop family, or the Gale family or any of the other families who have traded their earthy inheritance for an exceedingly large check, sometimes consider what was once theirs and regret leaving their farm on the freeway.

Part of this process we are all going through, usually categorized under the label “being human,“ consists of those moments when we take stock of the situation, look around, look up, look within, and admit certain things hurt like hell but we’d just as soon not talk about them with anyone. It’s not that we are totally averse to the notion of seeking advice and comfort from others. Rather, it is either not wishing to burden those already carrying their own burdens with further difficulties, or a sudden flash of self-awareness that other people, in fact, also hurt and they’re tired of listening to you whine all the time like you’re the only person who’s got issues. Laugh, and the world laughs with you; pity party, and you pity party alone.

There is a third possibility: you simply don’t want to talk about it, no matter how deep the pain, because discussing things is the emotional equivalent of tearing a bandage off very, very slowly just to prove there’s a wound underneath. You know it’s there. Whether the world sees it is immaterial. It’s real, and it’s not that spectacular. It hurts like it is, though.

Still, it’s good to find some kind of commiseration. There is solace in knowing that others know, or have known, what we’re going through. We might not want to talk about it, but we wouldn’t mind hearing from others who are willing to talk about it. We know we are not alone, but we’d still like some reassurance we’re not the only one hurting.

Enter Mike Roe.

Roe, be it with his band The 77s or solo, has carved a path in Christian rock for naked honesty trumping needless homilies. In addition to possessing guitar skills legitimately placing him alongside such blues and rock legends as Eric Clapton, Roe is an amazing songwriter in two distinct genres: shimmering guitar pop and earthy blues/rock. That he is not feted as rock royalty is near criminal, but Roe perseveres. And he talks about the things we’d often rather not: divorce, alienation, loved ones dying.

Lately Roe has carried a heavy burden, taking care of his father as he has steadily drawn closer to the end of his days on this earth. Like most every other Christian rocker from back in the day, Roe is anything but independently wealthy, and needing to focus on his dad’s needs instead of making a living with his music has taken a toll. Thus the title of this post: you help him by buying some downloads and perhaps a CD or two, Roe and company bless you with their musical and lyrical gifts.

Ah, but where to begin — for that matter, where to find out what Roe and the 77s sound like? I’ve assembled a suggested playlist covering some of Roe’s gritty and graceful highlights. Each song title links to the band’s Bandcamp page where you can listen and buy, with one exception that’s not presently available but will be later this year. I had written descriptions for some of the songs, but I’ve discarded them as unnecessary. Just listen. You’ll get it.

This Is The Way Love Is

Woody

Begin

Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba

Nowhere Else

Dig My Heels

Mercy Mercy

Holy Hold

The Rain Kept Falling In Love

Make A Difference Tonight

Caught In An Unguarded Moment

The Years Go Down

Unbalanced

Perfect Blues

Sevens

The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes & The Pride Of Life

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

The playlist is also available on YouTube.

Sipping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
A broken needle in a purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

 

from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman

 

On “Center Of My Heart,” a song from Tourniquet which was Larry Norman’s final studio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walking contradiction.” After reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, it’s obvious truer words have seldom been spoken.

Thornbury’s biography of Larry Norman, Christian rock’s founding father in the 1960s and most polarizing figure to this day, is a fascinating and sobering look at the life of a man almost perpetually surrounded by controversy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, intentional or no; his incessant need to be in control and insistence on being a lone wolf utterly convinced of his selected path’s correctness often frayed and sometimes shattered relationships both professional and personal. Yet, he could also be generous to a fault with his time, money, and talents. He was also a brilliant songwriter and performer, penning and recording work that remains stunningly powerful and genuinely life-changing for those who have ears to hear.

Norman, to quote from a song by Mark Heard whose early career was directly influenced by Norman, was too sacred for the sinners and the saints wished he’d leave. The former were often off-put by Norman’s frequent references to Christ crucified and risen, while the latter routinely freaked out over his mixing straightforward love and political songs, plus generous use of allegory and parable, into his body of work. Norman didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.

The book does an excellent job in painting the backdrop for Norman’s life and times, managing the not inconsiderable feat of detailing such elements as the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a manner both informative to the uninitiated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biographers tell a tale of life well; others specialize in times. Thornbury does both well.

Thornbury mentions more than once how Norman in concert sought not to entertain, but rather to challenge his audience, having no hesitation about making it feel uncomfortable through in-between song musings as well as in the songs themselves. He posed questions about faith and how believers should conduct themselves in the world, detailing the need to demolish the Christian ghetto and actually be in the world but not of it. Norman was simultaneously icon and iconoclast, the one without whom most every contemporary Christian artists would not be there while at the same time asking what they were doing there, as they were neither witnessing to non-believers nor edifying those who were already Christians.

The book is unflinching in its examination of Norman and those around him; his first wife Pamela and his early protege Randy Stonehill both come off quite poorly. However, the book also tosses bouquets as easily as it does brickbats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak maximum ill of the dead or the living. In lieu thereof it is, as best as Norman can be capsulated, a multi-level study of a multi-level man who won friends, made enemies, influenced many far more than they are willing to admit, and left it for others to argue about as he decidedly did it his way. If you love Larry Norman, or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is enriching reading that, even as Norman did with his work, forces reflection.

The book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

On a sunny Orange County afternoon some twelve years ago, I was in a bookstore containing (but of course) a large coffee shop upfront. My purpose in being there was to meet up with one Mike Stand, leader of seminal Christian punk rock group the Altar Boys.

At the time, Stand’s musical career, at least as far as Christian rock was concerned, was decidedly in the rearview mirror. In more recent years he has fronted a rockabilly trio calling itself the Altar Billies. But, at the time we met so I could interview him for my book, we were talking about what had previously transpired.

During our conversation, he mentioned a sixth Altar Boys album. Now, as all fans of the group know, the band released five albums during their tenure. So, what was this mysterious sixth album to which Stand referred? He stated that it was planned to as a follow-up to Forever Mercy, adding how the album had gone so far into production it had been named: No Substitute. However, for various reasons the project was never completed, Stand lamenting that it would’ve been a much better final statement on his band’s career than Forever Mercy.

Whether the Altar Boys can be labeled the first Christian punk band is a matter for musicologists to argue. The band wasn’t a pure punk band; its music is far better described as raw, bareknuckled, hard driving rock ‘n’ roll. Tons of intensity, tons of passion, and an uncompromising lyrical message focused on salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Forever Mercy got away from the band’s musical strength. No Substitute would have been a welcome return to form. Alas, it was doubtless never to see the light of day.

I mention the above because recently Stand, along with the Boys and his boy (his son is helping with the engineering and such), has dusted off the tracks recorded by him for No Substitute, completing the tracks already recorded by using the original vocals and guitars from the 1991 and 1993 sessions as the cornerstone for completing an album even the most devoted Altar Boys fans doubted would ever see the light of day … assuming they knew it existed. There’s a Kickstarter campaign going on right now to finance the whole thing.

I said all that to say this.

As one of the other artists in my book stated, every publicly-placed creative endeavor involves a fair amount of shooting arrows over the horizon. You don’t know where they’re going to land, chances are excellent you’ll never know where they did land, and thus you do not know and will never know if you hit any intended targets. You give it your best shot (no pun intended), and you move on, all the while wondering if it mattered.

Lately I’ve been fighting a nasty streak of ennui plus hopelessness. My employer is going away, taking the store my boss and I worked ridiculously hard on with it. There are few things more frustrating than the failure of others sweeping you up with it when for your part you sweated blood to make your piece of the pie a roaring success. And it was. Now it’s going away. Definitely takes the wind out of your sails.

I’m relatively certain I’ll land another job. I’m quite certain it won’t be as personally and professionally rewarding as this one has been. Hopefully it’ll at least be all right. We shall see.

I think back to the book and wonder: did it make a difference? I did my best to lift up the artists and music I love to the world. Hopefully it made some new fans. Hopefully it reignited someone’s faith. Hopefully that sunny Orange County afternoon, and all the other interviews conducted at different times and places, mattered. I honestly don’t know.

But I’d do it again.

Perhaps one day I’ll find out if I hit anything.

I didn’t watch the Oscars this past Sunday. Based on its television ratings, which were the lowest ever for the event, I wasn’t the only one otherwise occupied.

Once upon a time I was a voracious consumer of all things awards show related. Back during the same time period I was an equally voracious consumer of all things media, watching network TV every night, wearing out a path between myself and the local record store to pick up the latest anything, a frequent visitor to nearby cinemas and routinely bringing home the latest VHS tape (yes, I’m old) of recent or recently released movies. These days I find myself increasingly doing none of the above. Especially the VHS part. And get off my lawn.

Despite this profound lack of interest in whatever the entertainment media machine is pushing these days, I do keep casual tabs on the latest and, uh, latest. Before I completely fossilize, it is important to understand what is going on so I can actually converse with people lower than my age bracket. That whole Paul tack about being all things to all people. Or me attempting to stay relevant. Take your pick.

One movie I did see last year was Coco. I have been a devotee of Pixar films since the first Toy Story, and while there has been the occasional misstep (Cars 2 was dreadful, this made all the more disappointing by the first movie being my unquestioned all-time favorite), for the most part Pixar is synonymous with top-notch cinema.

Coco, for those of you who somehow missed it, is set in contemporary Mexico. For its backdrop it draws heavily, with scrupulous accuracy, on Mexican culture, specifically the annual celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). However, Coco uses this not as a focal point, but a springboard to weave an amazing tale of family, truth seeking, and forgiveness. The cultural detailing is flawless, but it is not the story any more than the ofttimes breathtaking animation is the story. Coco is a powerful, universal story. It is not merely one of the best animated films I have ever seen. It is one of the best movies I have seen period. I have not seen any of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture in the now concluded Oscars, but I have great difficulty believing they were all sufficiently better than Coco to where they each deserved nomination more than Pixar’s latest exercise in movie magic.

Much — far too much — has been written and said by all sides in the culture and political battle between Hollywood on the left and conservatives on the right. Once in a while, can we set the online warfare aside and simply watch a movie that uplifts even as it entertains? They do exist. Coco is living proof. We need more of this. No one is denying anyone the right to their opinion. But can we all, at least once in a while, agree that a powerful story well told is something on which we can actually agree?

Sure would be nice.

Synthpop, it was said during its heyday, was progressive rock for keyboardists who couldn’t play. A tad harsh, but during synthpop’s nascent years, the endless stream of electric blips, beeps, and beats was anything but electric for those wishing to have something more than mindless dance rhythms in their music. You know, things like melody and hooks and all that other icky stuff.

Born during the late ‘70s new wave craze, synthpop eventually outgrew its simplistic beginning when artists like Howard Jones started bringing more traditional pop elements — reference earlier comment regarding melody and hooks — into the mix, this arguably de-evolving into today’s autotuned cookie cutter pop poo. However, for a brief flourish during the ‘80s, synthpop was a pleasant mix of pop and still-fresh instrumentation.

Enter Mad At The World. Mad At The World was the brainchild of one Roger Rose, who when not working his day job as a postman in Southern California was working on his music, and his younger brother Randy. Roger and Randy loved synthpop (and still do). Roger and Randy loved Jesus (and still do). Roger and Randy decided the two would work well together. Hence, Mad At The World was born.

Although synthpop was not an entirely unknown quantity in Christian music, at its inception Mad At The World hewed far closer to the more gritty purveyors of same than, say, Crumbächer who were far more pop vocal inclined. During its career Mad At The World made two major music shifts, first going toward heavy guitar rock and then mining a more mainstream rock/pop vein. In the beginning, though, the band was muscular synthpop.

Fast forward to the present day. While Randy has remained musically active — review of his most recent solo effort here — Roger has been out of the spotlight for many years, leaving Mad At The World naught but a fond memory for its fans. Then last year, Randy had an idea. C’mon big brother, let’s record three new albums, each reflecting one of Mad At The World’s musical phases! Roger was game, so after a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds, recording commenced. The end result is Hope.

Hope makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is, namely a faithful and affectionate ode to synthpop. The instrumentation is relatively sparse; the melodies simple but thoroughly effective. Roger Rose affects a bit of an accent when singing (hey, so does Billie Joe Armstrong), but it works within the artistic context of this album. Lyrically things are mostly straightforward roots evangelical. It’s not deep theological musings, but it is both comforting and encouraging.

When viewed through quality and not nostalgia’s lens, Hope makes a strong case for being Mad At The World’s best synthpop album and easily one of its best period. The brothers Rose have always made very even albums, but this time through the songwriting is kicked up a notch. Hope might appear to be little more than dusting off a bygone era in contemporary music, but it’s not. Rather, it is a solid, brand new testimony to the truism that if it was good yesterday, it’s good today as well. Very, very good.

The record is available here.

As I recall, the saying goes that while I may be old, at least I got to see all the cool bands. I suppose that forty years hence the tender teens of today will be muttering about how current bands are an awful atrocious abomination, next fondly playing their cherished golden oldie Arcade Fire or Paramore tunes. Being the curmudgeonry conservative I am, I fearlessly state that no, it’s not because I’m too old; the Cheez-Wiz preprogrammed preprocessed recipe pablum ear candy slime being passed off as music today really does suck. Prayerfully one day you’ll catch on, kids, demanding your generation start creating authentic music or you’re tossing them aside in favor of the real thing. For the latter, start here.

Although totally unaware of it at the time, disco notwithstanding I was blessed spending my teen years in the 70s, when in order to make music people had to actually sing and play instruments and all that other silly stuff. I was extremely fortunate in that my high school music department was filled with programs and musicians on a collegiate and higher level. I played a small part in the program, singing fairly well in various choirs, playing a decent bass in the school jazz band, and contributing a very mediocre viola in the orchestra. As the soundtrack to our high school years said, two out of three ain’t bad.

I, and my local compatriots, luxuriated in a sea of top-flight local musicians in multiple genres. We were proud of the bands that we were in, and even the bands that we weren’t in. Names totally unknown outside of our little town of Livermore, but to those of us who knew better they were giants.

The past twists and turns and fades in our mind’s theater over the decades; times that at the time seems like the end of the world are now viewed through soft focus and a fond fuzziness. Regrettably, for most of the music and bands we grew up with, recollections are all we have. Hopefully there are a few not totally tattered cassettes out there somewhere that someone will dig up and share with us. But, for the most part, all we have are memories.

One of the local bands we revered back in the day was a progressive rock ensemble named Tykus. Led by the brothers Jim and Roger Liptak, Roger on guitar and Jim, a true keyboard master who was legitimately on the level of a Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, Tykus in a just world would have conquered said world. However, as I trust you’ve learned by now the world isn’t just, and they didn’t.

A few days ago, I saw a note by one of the members of one of the bands from back in the day, commenting how he had been gifted with a Tykus CD. It wasn’t for sale; strictly a gift for family and friends.

Uh … TYKUS CD?!!

Must. Have.

Thus, inquiries were made, connections were established, and this past Tuesday Tykus’ bassist graciously gave me a copy of the CD.

As noted, memories can and often do skewer reality. Thus, I was actually hesitant to listen to the CD. Would it live up to all I had been told, and all I remembered, of this mighty band?

The answer was no.

It blew away all memories and expectations as far as the east is from the west.

Tykus wasn’t good. They weren’t great. They were at minimum three levels beyond that. Tykus truly was the equal of progressive rock giants such as Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Kansas. The compositions, the singing, the playing – all were, and are, utterly brilliant. I can’t stop listening to this CD. I will never stop listening to this CD. It has gained immediate entry to the hall of the greats; the music I will constantly refer to until I’m listening to the heavenly choir. And no, it’s not just nostalgia talking. Tykus was that good.

I pray for today’s teenagers. No, not solely that they get the chance to hear real music in their lifetime made by their peers. I pray that forty years from now their memories of today will be filled with music and the bands, the friends, and the fun times that should permeate the teen years. I pray that the greatest angst they will have to suffer is something similar to what I felt when I couldn’t get a date to the senior prom, not having to dive for cover every time there’s a loud sound fearing it’s a gun and not some joker with a firecracker.

It’s bad enough kids these days don’t get to know real music.

It’s far worse they aren’t able to enjoy without fear what they do have.

Today’s kids deserve the chance to have a Tykus of their own.


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